This Xena Episode Helped Fight the Stigma Around HIV/AIDS in the 90s
While Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, with its admittedly superior writing, is often heralded as being the most important female-led series of the 90s within genre television, I have always maintained that Xena: Warrior Princess was the more inclusive show.
Now, this isn’t to say I’m trying to put these two shows against each other; they both have qualities that make them iconic and amazing within their own right. However, where Buffy was always very white and not queer until much later on in the series, Xena has always had a diverse cast of supporting characters in terms of race and sexuality.
While Xena and Gabrielle are an iconically teased couple, born of subtext that became increasingly textual. In-universe, there were plenty of same-sex kisses between them as the series dipped more into the fanservice era(and I think without confirmation we can pretty much agree that these two women are at least bisexual), there was already a pretty iconic queer moment in Xena back in the season two episode 11 “Here She Comes … Miss Amphipolis.”
In this episode, Xena enters a beauty competition to see who is sabotaging the event, in order to stop a war. It’s really one of many excuses the show will have to put Xena in a blonde wig and cute outfit. During the pageant, she meets Miss Artiphys, played by Karen Dior.
Karen Dior was a bisexual adult films actor and a male-identified American female impersonator. Two years before this episode aired, in 1995, Dior had been diagnosed with AIDS and has become an AIDS activist. While AIDS/HIV is now less stigmatized and there is a better understanding of how it is passed on, back in the 90s, there was still a lot of misinformation about AIDS, especially when it came to queer men. Some people even saw kissing as a way of transferring the condition.
By the end of 1995, according to reports, there were an estimated 4.7 million new HIV infections, and in 1997, UNAIDS estimated that 30 million people had HIV worldwide—equating to 16,000 new infections a day.
In the episode, Dior, as Artiphys, kisses Xena/Lucy Lawless, an act that challenged then-current notions regarding AIDS and methods of transmission of the disease. It is something that might seem small now, but at the time for people who knew who Dior was, it was a powerful moment in solidarity.
Not to mention, even though Dior himself was not trans, and we can absolutely see it as problematic today that he was playing an implied transwoman, Xena does not for a moment judge or dismiss Artiphys’ identity as a woman.
While Xena was limited by censorship on what it could and could not show, it did push boundaries and always try to be inclusive, even if it could only be subtext. And it is because of the things that Xena did that we could have the relationship between Tara and Willow in Buffy.
Sadly, Dior passed away in 2004 from hepatitis.
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